Snorkeling with Seals at Montague Island, NSW, Australia: The most affordable wildlife experience in Australia!

Location: , 12 min read
I first stopped in Narooma on my second trip up from Melbourne to Sydney. Coming into the South Coast, we wanted to check out Australia Rock and had a giggle about Australia’s fondness of unusual landmarks. That’s when I spotted them on the rocks. A whole bunch of seals! Lazing around in the sun, they were having the chillest time. Right then and there I decided I had to come back to Narooma to snorkel with the fur seals at Montague Island!
It took me another year and a half to get back down there. By then they were pretty high up on my Australia bucket list, especially because Narooma is so accessible from Sydney! A 5,5h drive south from Sydney, my dream of swimming with the seals off the coast of Narooma would finally come through!
 
Driving into Narooma, the vivid turquoise water caught our eye first. My friend Elly, a local, remarked how amazing it always is here. Perfect blues that take your breath away and wildlife to boot! Narooma draws in all kinds of wildlife. A quick visit to the harbor will introduce you to the local fur seal, a few massive stingrays, and the pelicans. All waiting for the fishermen to start cleaning their fish. I couldn’t wait to jump in the water and go snorkeling with the seals lounging in the area!

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Pinit

Snorkeling with seals at Montague Island

I can’t say I’ve been more excited about anything in a while and I have to admit that I live a pretty good life here in Australia. Getting up close with seals in the wild is so special to me.
Underwater Safaris picked us up from the small harbor in Narooma. We set off through the choppy waters to Montague Island with not much more than a wetsuit on and a smile on our face. Only 7km from shore, the trip doesn’t take very long but don’t expect to get here without an island charter.
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Photo and editing By Lindsay Buckey

You see, the thing about seals is that you smell them before you actually see them. While they are fun as hell to swim with, their odor is not the best one. We were the only boat heading into a small cove where Francois, our skipper, had told us the seals were particularly relaxed. It was also a popular spot for mums to raise their little pups. I was really hoping there would be pups in the area as January is prime time for them.

Fur Seals: puppies of the ocean

It was time to go snorkeling with the seals! Finally!
Slowly but surely, I had the first seal in the water with me. Two jumped in to figure out what kind of a weird animal I was and started twirling around me. I was super careful to let the seal come to me and tried to entertain it by duck diving myself. It seemed to work and I had two gorgeous seals playing all around me. I am always so amazed when a wild animal chooses to interact with me (without any feeding of any kind) and this was no exception. I love it!
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Where to find the seal pups?

We were told that the seal pups would be hiding in the more sheltered parts around the cove. They asked us to not go see them all at once and to give them the space they deserved. Even though they are super cute little critters, you need to remember that they are still wild animals. While curious, you need to keep your distance and let the animals come to you. If they are not coming, it means they don’t want to and its best to leave them alone.
The pups are the most curious of all the seals. They are observing you just as much as you are observing them. Jumping in the water to check you out and to swim off just as fast as they came while mum watches over them. And oh boy, are they cute! I just can’t get over it!
 
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We didn’t want to crowd the babies too much and decided to explore the rest of the cove. It didn’t take long before we had a few other adult seals frolicking around us. The second you decide to chase one, they are off as fast and you can push the button on your camera! Seals are notorious for teasing sharks because they know they are faster, so don’t even bother trying to catch up with one!

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Creeping up on the seal pup, photo and editing by Lindsay Buckley
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Falling in love with my spirit animal

My friend Elly was a pro at finding the most playful seals and I soon started following her around like a puppy. We ended up having another playful encounter with two other babies. I had not seen them coming due to the crashing waves, but soon one popped up right on my chest. The wave had pushed this curious creature towards me and while I squealed a little, the pup made the exact same sound. Looking at my photos after, I noticed they were super close to me the whole time! Talk about the best experience ever!

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Baby seals swimming super close to me!
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The fast and the playful: the adult seals

When we were used to being in the water, we headed around the corner to the open ocean. It was time to snorkel with the bigger and faster seals. In large groups, they were jumping in and out of the water all around the boat and it didn’t take long before I decided to jump in. The water was a lot murkier and we were warned to avoid the bluebottle jellyfish that were in the water. They are not deadly, but give you a very painful sting!
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Seals were everywhere! The bigger ones were playing with each other and checking us out while swimming faster than I could ever imagine. There was a large group of them showcasing the weirdest behavior as well. Floating on the water with a flipper in the air. While super weird looking, this is how they cool off. Apparently, the local wildlife rescue groups get plenty of messages from locals worried that the seal is sick while showcasing this behavior. Go figure! Because they are resting, it is advised to leave these seals alone and snorkel with the ones that are already playing around.

 
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Have a look at the video below to see how fast they actually swim!

What kind of Fur Seals live on Montague Island?

Due to the absence of humanity and predators and the abundance of fish and penguins surrounding the island, fur seals absolutely love Montague island. It is a very easy life for them here and they aren’t planning on leaving any time soon.
The rocks and waters around the island are popular with Australian fur seals and New Zealand fur seals. During the peak season (winter and spring) the island is home to over 1000 seals. Some seals are their lazy selves and they just stick around all year round.
New Zealand fur seals are slightly smaller and darker than their Australian counterparts. Their behavior is the easiest indicator to tell them apart. Australian fur seals love to lounge and move around the island in a group while the New Zealand fur seals are loners.
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What wildlife can you spot at Montague island?

Can you see Whales at Montague Island?

Yes! You might even be so lucky to see whales on the way to the seals! Humpback whales and Southern Right Whales pass Montague Island on their way south to Antartica during spring. While winter is widely known to be whale watching in Australia, if you want to see them around this area, spring will be your go-to time. Most tour operators will offer whale tours during the season.
Killer Whales might pass by the island as well looking for a feed, but this is much rarer. If you’re really really lucky, you may spot a Mola Mola, a gigantic fish also known as an Ocean Sunfish. Knowing that these fish are there all year round makes me want to go back asap!

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One of the humpback whales that passed the Australian coastline in Exmouth on the west coast

Penguins

Gosh, we got so lucky on this tour! On the way back, Francois made a sudden stop to the boat. It was a group of Little Penguins swimming past us! While the whole boat was ecstatic about this chance encounter, my trusty fellow adventurer Lindsay was a little bit less happy about this as the sudden stop catapulted her seasickness to a climax. We felt so bad for her!
While called Little Penguins, they are in fact that, very little. A massive colony of 8.000 Little Pinguins lives on the island and you can see their nest from the boat. As humans were not to the habitat on the island 100 years ago, they are now offering a helping hand to these cute little animals by providing man-made nests. The nests are clearly marked to aid in the penguins’ protection. During the day, the parents will go out to fish and they will only return to shore around dusk to feed their babies. If you are interested, there are also a few tours offered that allow you to spot these returning penguins.

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Dolphins

While the seals and the whales take most of the glory in Narooma, dolphins are often sighted swimming next to the boats. There are no tours offering to swim with the dolphins in this area (but you can swim with dolphins in New Zealand!). Maybe because they like boats better than humans. We are not fast enough to play with after all!

Birdlife

If you’re into birds (apart from the penguins mentioned above), Montague island will be your idea of heaven! Birds love the island for the same reason the seals love the island: the absence of predators. The island is populated by Shearwaters, Raptors, Crested terns and other smaller birds. I’m not the biggest bird watcher, so have a read here if you’re interested.

Why Plastic is a problem on Montague Island as well

The one bird that I did want to mention is the Shearwaters. Some of you may know them, if only from the pictures of the dead birds with a stomach full of plastic. The birds are notorious for confusing floating plastic with food and then feeding it to their babies. This problem is wildly known on Montague island with thousands of birds die from starvation because the plastic is taking up all the space in their stomach. Referred to by scientists as a “ticking timebomb”, the plastic in the ocean is a massive problem for these birds. One more reason to watch out how much plastic you are using in your daily life!
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Scientists removing plastic from a young Shearwaters bird on Lord Howe Island, an island that has the same problem as Montague Island (photo)

Scientists refer to Shearwaters and a ticking timebomb because they collect so much plastic from the ocean. They feed this to their babies, slowly but surely starving them to death.

What about sharks around Montague Island?

The locals talk a lot about the sharks surrounding the island and they are not a fan of jumping in the water! While seals can be shark food, sharks aren’t present in the area on a regular basis.
The ocean is of course still the wilderness and that doesn’t mean that there is zero record of sharks in the area. The only recorded death by a predator was by a group of Killer Whales who also pass by the island on a yearly basis. Most deaths of seals, however, are by fishing waste that is floating around in the ocean. This includes hooks, rope from fishing nets and floating trawler nets. As per usual, humans are the biggest killer in the area.
That’s it for the so-called dangerous sharks! A shark you will want to see at Montague Island is the Grey Nurse Shark. They are absolutely harmless, even though they look like the ‘real deal’. If you’re a scuba diver, you can head to this popular dive site while you’re visiting the area as well.
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Getting to Montague Island & What to Book?

Which Montague Island tour should you choose?

We approached Underwater Safaris in Narooma and they kindly invited us on board. The company seemed to have a wealth of knowledge of the area solely focus on wildlife tours (rather than fishing tours).  Francois, the skipper of Underwater Safaris, was the friendliest guy and knows so much about the island, the seals and the area. Plus they scored major plus points when they turned the boat around to catch a stray buoy that was polluting the ocean.
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How much does a tour to Montague Island cost?

Seal tours in Narooma are the most affordable wildlife experience you can buy in Australia (as far as I know anyway). Usually, any tour that involves a boat is very expensive, but Narooma seems to be the exception.
I assume the tour can stay affordable because Montague Island is close by land and you’re only out of the harbor for three or so hours. Most tours will cost around $100, depending on whether you need to hire a wetsuit.
I don’t recommend doing this trip without a wetsuit and if you don’t have one of your own, expect to spend an extra $15 for the hire of one. Underwater Safaris will charge your $75 to go snorkeling with the seals and $80 if you want to do a single dive. They also offer PADI courses at a very reasonable rate, check out their other offers here.
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Seal imitating polar bear?

Fun Facts about Montague Island

A Quick History of Montague Island

Montague Island, or Barunguba as the local indigenous tribe would call it, has quite the history. It used to be (and still is) an important site for indigenous culture and had an active lighthouse for 125 years as well. European settlers inhabited the island surrounding the lighthouse for over 100 years. It wasn’t an easy life on the island. They had to fend for themselves and kept goats and rabbits on their grounds to feed themselves. These introduced animals slowly but surely destroyed the landscape on the island. At the same time, the island was a popular site for seal hunting and fishing as wildlife was abundant around the island.
After more than 200 years of misuse, the landscape was destroyed and the wildlife decreased significantly.  In 1990 the island was finally protected and the wildlife returned to live in abundance. While the landscape of Montague island will never restore to its original state, the protection was able to save the location as a haven for a variety of birds, fish and, of course, the seal population.

Can you go onto Montague Island?

As it is a protected island, the only way to onto Montague island is by booking a tour. You cannot go on land by yourself. Book a walking tour through NSW National Parks website or in the Narooma visitor center. There is even accommodation on Montague Island as you can book the lighthouse if you wish to experience a night on the island.
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Practical tips for your roadtrip to Narooma

When do you want to go to Montague Island?

Spring and beginning of summer is the best time of year to visit Montague island. The water is warmer and the seals are around. If you want to see Humpback Whales, head over at the beginning of spring. If your priority is seeing those cute fur seal pups, go in January or February. We went over for the long Australia day weekend on the 26th of January.

How to get to Narooma and Montague Island?

Narooma is on the south coast of New South Wales. It is a not so short 5,5h drive from Sydney and about 3h from Canberra. This means that you can drive up and down in one day if you are very determined. I would highly recommend as the perfect long weekend away from Sydney! If you are driving up the south coast from Melbourne, plan an overnight stop.
To get from Narooma to Montague Island you will need to book one of the island charters that operate in the area. There are no roads that lead to Montague Island.

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It’s about a 5.5h hour roadtrip from Sydney to Narooma

If you are looking for a quick stop between Sydney and Narooma, I can highly recommend getting a coffee in Native in Ulladulla.

Narooma Accommodation

I usually prefer camping while roadtrip up and down the east coast. Narooma has several campsites available as do most Australian beach towns. My personal preference would go to Surf Beach Holiday Park as they have cabins right on the water with views to die for!  If you do not wish to camp, the Narooma Golfers Lodge for around 130AUD per night and Amooran Oceanside Apartments and Motel for around 128AUD per night. Click through on the names of the accommodation for exact prices.

Another great option is staying outside of Narooma and heading further south to the beautiful beach town Bermagui. It’s one of those iconic small towns that really takes you out of the city’s business. There is accommodation in the town, but not too much, so book in advance. It’s about a 30-minute drive from Narooma.

Disclaimer: This snorkel trip was offered to me by the lovely people at Underwater Safaris. Thank you so much, Francois and Clover for having us. All opinions on this article are my own and are not influenced by the fact that this trip was complimentary. 

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